Thursday, May 29, 2014

Underrated Vientiane.

Our Savannakhet-Vientiane bus ride was not quite as cushy as our Hue-Savannakhet ride. We spent 10 hours on the equivalent of an old school bus with no A/C (but fans installed in the ceiling - genius!) as the hot wind beat against our faces. It didn't get unbearable until mid-afternoon, though, and the people-watching made up for any discomfort.

the wheels on the bus go
round and round, round and round...

Vientiane, the capital of Lao, gets a bad rap in the travel blogger world.  Now that we've been we're not really sure why. Especially after coming from dusty, remote Savannakhet, we found Vientiane to be a pleasant city full of culture - as long as you were willing to look for it, and as long as you could stand the heat.

We had originally planned two nights in Vientiane but this got extended to three - and then four - when we decided to get our visas for Thailand (the reason most people seem to visit the city). This allowed us plenty of time to sightsee and loaf around... our favorite combo these days.

One of our favorite stops was the COPE Center. "Favorite" is probably not the right word, as this is a museum dedicated to educating people about the perils of unexploded ordinance (UXO), but the displays are powerful without being gratuitous and the short films featuring personal accounts of UXO accidents are really well done.

papier mache "bombies" made by children
as part of an educational outreach
(they also do rural puppet shows warning kids about UXO)

COPE was originally founded to provide prosthetics for amputees who lost limbs due to UXO; now they are able to help folks injured in traffic and work accidents as well.

prosthetic mosaic
(some were handmade by villagers
before they received their plastic prosthetic)

COPE offers educational workshops and training for locals... they do a lot, actually! Check out their web site and definitely visit if you find yourself in Vientiane.

Another favorite visit was the National Museum. Downstairs we saw really cool archaeology discoveries, ethnographic finds, and a nice exhibit on the Plain of Jars which was great since we didn't plan to visit. Upstairs we learned about the ethnic tribes in Lao and we also learned some fairly one-sided information about the French Indochina and "American" wars (but it was still an interesting perspective, and seeing how this country has been poverty-stricken and severely pummeled over the past few centuries gives you a sense of the peoples' resolve).

On the way out of the museum you are treated to dozens of 8x10 photos in cheap plastic frames featuring "action" scenes from the various ministries in Lao - the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Education, etc. It was clearly intended as national pride for locals and while elementary in display (especially compared to the rest of the museum) and mostly lost on us, it was still a fascinating view into what's seen as important here.

In non-war news, despite its abundance of cars Vientaine is really easy to explore on bicycle. The traffic is scarily calm - car drivers actually let you pass instead of zooming around you, and even the motorbikers usually give bicyclists the right of way. Such a pleasant change from the crazy Vietnam traffic! Since we biked to the Thai embassy - twice - we had a little time to explore before the heat of the day set in.

Day One we visited Pha That Luang, the most important national monument in Lao. Allegedly, this houses a piece of Buddha's breastbone although this has never been substantiated. The French kind of ruined it when they rebuilt it in the early 1900s (in their restoration they changed the orientation so that the main entrance faced the wrong direction), but at 45m tall it's still a pretty remarkable building.

newly restored in golden hues

more crazy faces

Wat That Luang Tai
(housed beautiful paintings when we visited)

There's no shortage of wats in Vientiane but we only (sort of) visited one other, Wat Si Saket. This is said to be Vientiane's oldest surviving temple. And that's all we can really tell you about it, other than the fact that it's pretty from outside the gate. We're saving our wat tour funds for the big one in Cambodia.

according to the internet,
the three tiered roof represents
the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching),
and Sangha (fellowship of followers of the teaching)

also just learned that
gold in Buddhism symbolizes the sun, or fire

and dragons are protectors of Buddhism
whose thunderous voices awaken us from delusion
(at least the Tibetan dragons)

Other odd cultural sites we visited included Patuxai, built in the 1960s with US-purchased cement that was supposed to be used for a new airport. There is an awesome sign inside the monument that says "From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete."

we are as unimpressed as the Lao people

And then there was the World Peace Gong...

(donated by China)

And a stupa in the middle of a roundabout.

very reminiscent of that pyramid
in the middle of that major road in Rome

And many more random sights, you can see them on Flickr.  Start here.

We spent a decent amount of time near Vientiane's riverfront. Thailand is just across the river, and at night (when it's not raining) the promenade lights up with a lively night market and lots of people walking, running, jazzercizing, and just enjoying the outdoors. It was a nice place to hang out.

by day

by night

Food notes: Vientiane definitely offers food for everyone. In our neighborhood there were plenty of restaurants serving western fare while the local night markets served fruit shakes and more traditional food. Generally speaking, we stuck to familiar dishes like fried rice but sometimes we got adventurous...

  • Kim discovered laap, a Lau specialty - ground pork, chicken or fish with lemon and herbs (eventually we would all come to love this dish)

beers definitely helped
(with the heat, not the food enjoyment)

  • pork is everywhere, and fat is not trimmed
deep fried pork with rice
from the cafe next to COPE

fried pork, greens and sticky rice
(a similar taste to bun cha without the broth)

  • but that pizza and gnocchi that one night never happened... we swear!

Lodging notes: the Vientiane Star Hotel had working A/C, hot showers, decent breakfast options, and the cutest little well-behaved puppy. It also featured Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones in constant rotation, so if that's your thing this is your place.

another feature? geckos everywhere!

Vientiane may not have been our favorite city ever in the history of all cities, but it was definitely worth the time we spent there. Keep your expectations in check and try to avoid the really hot months and we're sure you will agree.

Next stop: Vang Vieng, home to beautiful karsts and the most amazing... um... tubing. Right!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Every-day-is-Friday five: 400 days later, new ideas for avoiding travel burnout.

There are a lot of blog posts offering advice on how to avoid travel burnout. Many of these posts give the same tips - the main one being to stop for a while.  Other less dramatic tips include having your laundry done instead of washing it in the sink, enjoying some familiar comfort food, and (my personal favorite) petting the goat.

Now that we've hit 400 days on the road, we'd like to propose five new ideas for avoiding travel burnout. We've tried these with varying levels of effort and when employed regularly, they work pretty well. We're not religious about them and when we're not employing them, we're left a little jaded, tired, and cynical.  So we're going to keep employing them.

In no particular order, they are...

5. Plan for "weekends". All the other blog posts recommend finding a place you like and parking there for a few weeks, a month, six months - whatever it takes to recharge. We suggest taking the "parking" thing even further. At least every other week, plan two consecutive days of nothing. No 8-hour bus rides, no 40km bike adventures, no enduring 100•F heat for 12 straight hours so that you can visit every temple in Luang Prabang, or every mosque in Istanbul, or every cathedral in [insert name of any Western European city].

Instead, sleep in. Have a beer at lunch. Take a nap, read a book. Write those lingering blog posts.  Sit in a coffee shop until the sun sets. Lather, rinse, repeat.

parks are good too

All the cool sights will still be there tomorrow or the day after and this way, you'll actually have energy to enjoy them. (You'd take a two-day break now and then if you were working a 9-to-5 job, wouldn't you? And isn't long-term travel scarily like a 9-to-5 job sometimes?)

4. Indulge! But don't just drown your travel blues in beer or ice cream. Indulge in something you've always wanted to try. No matter where you are in the world, chances are pretty good that there's a cooking class, a weaving or pottery or music or traditional handicraft-making lesson, a local homestay trek, or an eco-friendly wildlife opportunity nearby. Do it!

For us indulgence tends to fall into the nature category (OK, and sometimes food... but mostly nature). Visiting Europe's oldest primeval forest, camping in the Moroccan desert, and hiking the Cares Gorge in Spain were some of our more expensive excursions to date - but we have absolutely no regrets.

absolutely ...
(Bialowieza National Park, Poland)

... no ...
(Merzouga, Morocco)

... regrets
(Cares Gorge, Picos de Europa, Spain)

This is also a great opportunity to look your fears in the eye - and then conquer them through a little indulgence! Afraid of heights? Sign up for a zipline or paragliding! Afraid of falling? Try bungee jumping, hot air ballooning, or parachuting! Afraid of sharks? Take surfing lessons or learn to dive! Chances are high that you're in a country with absolutely NO safety regulations, so your added bonus will be rubbing it in all your friends' faces when you live to tell your tale.

3. Skip the western stuff. Lots of people think that pizza and American TV and spending time with other travelers commiserating about travel woes will pull you out of your travel slump. We disagree. Maybe it's just us but we've done all of these at one point or another... and honestly, it just makes it harder for us to get back into the travel mindset.

the "all Friends all the time" bar in Vang Vieng
(we did NOT do this)

There's no denying that distractions are good sometimes, but instead of always going back to the familiar, try distracting yourself within your current local culture. Watch a local soap opera or music videos on TV. See whatever movie is playing at the local cinema. Grab a snack at a popular neighborhood food cart. Play ball with the kids on the street. Sit on a bench and watch life go by. It can be hard when all you want to do is to hide out, but stay connected. Stay present.

2. Don't skimp on toiletries! This sounds really shallow and dumb, but before you brush it off think about the last time you showered with a crappy bar of $0.20 soap or shampooed with generic shampoo purchased on sale at the local market. (Or used the WORST FLOSS ON THE PLANET that kept breaking and getting stuck in your teeth, but you refused to throw it away on general principal.) It kinda sucked, right? I'm not just talking to the ladies either - after going over a year without a haircut, Patrick can vouch for the benefits of good shampoo!

So stock up whenever you can on the Pantene, the Camay, the Pond's face scrub, the pumice stones, the Nivea cream. A few extra dollars here and there won't kill your budget and you'll feel that much better.

don't forget the Glide!
(thanks, Kim)

1. Get a little perspective. At some point or another we all get tired of constantly having to figure out our next move, washing clothes in the sink, haggling over four lousy bananas, discerning between the internal organ soup and the tofu soup at the local night market (and eating out all the time in general), going on tour after tour of uber-important must-see local attractions...

What else would you rather be doing, though?

Sometimes I look through updates on LinkedIn and can't believe that was my life 14 months ago. I can't say with certainty that it won't be my life again someday, but I can say that I am so glad I escaped that life for a while. LinkedIn is my perspective.

A little kid screaming "HELLO!!" on a dirt road is our perspective. A gorgeous mountain range or waterfall like nothing we've ever seen is our perspective. Talking with locals for whom internal and/or external travel is not an option is our perspective.

what's your perspective?

Above all, if you're really and truly burned out, please just go home! Cranky foreigners are really no fun for anyone. Trust us, the world will thank you. You can always hit the road again once you've adequately recharged and decided you are ready for more adventure. And you can always decide that you're happy staying put, too.

So that's our five cents... six cents, if you count the closing paragraph. Got a lesser-known long-term travel survival tip? Leave a comment - we have many days of travel ahead of us so we'd love to hear how you do it!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Yes, we're still going to Thailand. (Yes, soon.)

By now you probably know that Thailand's army, which declared martial law on Tuesday, has upped this to an official coup. The military has taken control of the government, suspended the constitution, shut down TV programming, banned political gatherings, and implemented a curfew from 10pm-5am. The coup appears to be peaceful but quite serious - dozens of political figures and now even prominent academics are being detained for unspecified periods of time so that they can "think about things" (in the words of the BBC).

Lao TV includes a lot of Thai programming -
we can vouch for the shutdown

You may recall that our upcoming Habitat for Humanity Global Village build is in Thailand - right near Bangkok, in fact. We'll be crossing the Lao/Thai border in about a week to make our way down to Bangkok for our Habitat build, stopping in a few places TBD along the way.

The US Embassy has issued statements advising travelers to exercise caution (or cancel non-essential trips altogether), avoid protest areas, and follow the instructions of Thai authorities. But realistically, the coup probably won't have any impact on our travels. In preparation for this leg of our trip, we applied for our Thai visas while in Vientiane (you may also recall a cranky post about that debacle); the tension in Thailand was definitely building at that time but we were issued tourist visas with no problem. Honestly, an American couple wanting to hike pretty mountains in Chiang Mai and 15 foreigners coming to Bangkok to build a house for a low-income family are probably the least of anyone's concerns right now.

Regardless, rest assured that we'll be smart and safe. We'll be keeping an eye on travel-related Twitter posts (usually useless but surprisingly helpful in situations like this) and daily BBC news updates. Our local Habitat team in Thailand is also closely monitoring the situation. They will keep us informed of any dangers (highly unlikely) or inconveniences (far more likely) as a result of the coup.

Hopefully, things will settle down over the next few weeks and we'll enjoy a stress-free visit to this beautiful country. If not, it will make for a really interesting and memorable Global Village build. And hey, our only rule going into this trip was to not end up in a foreign prison. We never said anything about avoiding a military coup.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sweltering in Savannakhet.

Our fourth border crossing by foot was fairly uneventful. (Fellow Hue-Savannakhet travelers, see the first comment for how we did it.)

sabai di, Lao!

With most border crossings (by foot, bus, ferry, whatever) there hasn't really been a noticeable difference from one country to the next. The one exception was Spain to Morocco but for that we crossed a large body of water and entered a whole new continent, so the change was gradual and understandable.

The change from Vietnam to Lao was striking, though. Fairly well-constructed concrete buildings became small, wooden stilt houses just across the border. Green fields became brown and barren. Well-maintained major roads were suddenly full of bumps and potholes. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Our destination that day, Savannakhet, is not exactly a tourist mecca (most travelers visit to renew their Thai visa or break up the bus ride to/from Vientiane). When we first arrived we had a hard time finding our hotel; we also had a hard time finding signs in English... or people who spoke any English.

this was an easy one - but in general
I'm not sure we were mentally prepared
for the drastic language change

Folks in town were polite but not exactly friendly. We were approached by beggars for the first time since Morocco. And the unbearable heat and blazing sun didn't help our moods much. (Okay, it didn't help my mood. Whatever.)

We didn't wander far around the hot, dusty town. Our hotel was pretty far outside the main area and there didn't seem to be much to see, and definitely not much we could understand or appreciate without speaking or reading the language. With the help of a few maps we still managed to take in a few sights though...

Wat Sainyaphoum

St Teresia Catholic Church

the Mekong
(I can see Thailand!
and lots of trash!)

Savannakhet is near several important archaeological sites and out of curiosity we walked by the dinosaur museum but decided not to go in. Reading up on it later, this was probably a good decision (in addition to that stellar review, another pair recommended having a few beers before venturing over to make it more enjoyable). They do love their dinosaurs though.


Food notes:
  • really nice chicken curry from two of the nightly food stalls a block from our hotel - the tricky parts were (a) figuring out which pots were chicken, and (b) determining who to order from once you make your way to the front of the crowd (hint: it's not the young girl standing behind the table waiting for her order who looks at you strangely when you try to order from her)
yum #1

yum #2
  • really tasty juice from Phounin Bakery
gone in 60 seconds

  • really mediocre ramen for breakfast at the hotel
not recommended
unless it's your only option within 7km
  • lunch at Cafe Dee noted in the sign above - pretty tasty, but definitely not authentic Lao food!
  • and of course, the local brew
just as tasty as Vietnam's beer!

Lodging notes: Barrardleungxay Hotel had an awesome deal on their rooms, which were pretty nice - Kim's even came with a little gecko! Unfortunately it was 7km outside of town and other than a few markets and a couple aforementioned nightly food stalls, there weren't many eating options. Perfect if you have a car or plan to visit the casino across the street, otherwise go with something in the town center.

Savannakhet was challenging but so was Warsaw, and so was Rabat. And those worked out just fine. We've heard nothing but great things about Lao and we can't wait to see what comes next - so without further ado, to Vientiane!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Vietnam on $30/person/day.

We thought Vietnam might be a little more inexpensive than it was, but there aren't really many hostels (and honestly, we're kinda done with hostels anyway) and hotels don't really let you cook in their kitchens (but who wants to do that when a great meal costs as little as $1?).

Tours and flying vs ground transport will run you a little higher but generally speaking, we ate well, we slept well and we had a really good time for an average of $30/person/day.

We're basing the Year Two plan on our expenses in Vietnam (assuming the same $30/person/day average will apply in Lao, Thailand and Cambodia). If you take out our flights into Vietnam the average is more like $22/person/day, and we'll most likely be traveling by bus into the other countries. So hopefully we're erring on the cautious side.

Anyway! Here's the breakdown with some details...

Initial budget: we really had no idea what to expect, but estimated no more than $30/person/day
Actual cost: 59 days at $3569 ($60/day, $30/person/day - sweet!)

pie chart skills continue to decline

  • Lodging: $661 - 56 nights at guest houses or 1-/2-star hotels averaging $6/person/night (3 overnight buses/trains not included here)
  • Transportation: $1649 - the biggest expenses here were our flights from Madrid-Ho Chi Minh City ($923) and Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City ($174); otherwise this accounts for trains/buses between major cities, obligatory taxis from Danang-Hoi An and Dong Hoi-Phong Nha, a couple ferry rides and motorbike rentals, and nominal dollars spent on public transportation everywhere
  • Groceries: $154 - we never cooked our own meals other than ramen, so this is mostly for gallons and gallons of bottled water and snacks during transport
  • Meals: $500 - again, we ate out almost every meal so this comes to roughly $4.25/person/day (yes, this includes lots of free breakfasts at hotels, but still - per DAY)
  • Tours: $229 - various museums in Ho Chi Minh City, Buôn Ma Thuột and Hanoi; admission to parks or other local attractions in Dalat, Buôn Ma Thuột, Quy Nhơn, Phong Nha, Sapa and Cat Ba Island; organized tours to the Mekong Delta and My Son Sanctuary; trekking in Sapa ($25pp) and kayaking near Cat Ba Island ($16pp)
  • Alcohol: $52 - beer is about $0.50 so you do the math
  • "Misc": $42 - $9 in laundry; $9 for our "entertainment" splurges of the water puppet show and paddle boats in Hanoi; $24 for two months of random expenses including Jen's t-shirt, souvenirs in Sapa, Jen's haircut, a gift to our super-nice hotel owners in Dalat, a book in Hanoi, and some other trivial things
  • Border: $282 - $140 each for our 3-month visas, plus $2 in "exit" fees when we crossed into Lao

Other fun Vietnam facts...
  • Cities visited: 13 (Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho, Dalat, Buôn Ma Thuột, Nha Trang, Quy Nhơn, Hoi An, Phong Nha, Hue, Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island)
  • Bowls of pho consumed: we can't count that high
  • National parks visited: 2 (Cat Ba, Phong Nha-Ke Bang - we also got really close to Bidoup Núi Bà near Dalat)
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 4 (Hoi An Ancient Town, My Son Sanctuary, Halong Bay, Phong Nha-Ke Bang)
  • Plastic water bottles thrown away: we don't want to know

Fellow travelers, what was your experience with costs in Vietnam?  How did you save money - and what did you splurge on?

And now to Lao, where 8000 kip is roughly $1! Just when we'd gotten used to the 21,000 dong/$1 conversion... Travel is hard!

Lazy last days in Huế.

When we stopped over in Huế the first time, it was just to break up a big train ride and get a feel for the city before Kim's visit. Based solely on four hours exploring that one night, our guts had a good feeling. Our second time through we planned three days and after day one we were happy to learn that our guts had been right. (Aren't they always?) It was our last stop in Vietnam and we liked it a lot.

Huế had a familiar, comfortable feel about it. It's divided by a river and has a few walkable bridges... common features in cities we tend to enjoy. (Go figure!)

they light Truong Tien Bridge at night
much like the Morrison Bridge

The easily-navigable streets are lined with trees, flowers, and colorful red banners (no idea what they said, but they were pretty). The motorbikes were calmer here than in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi. And as with everywhere in Vietnam, the people were all friendly.  There's plenty to do in and around Huế but we felt no pressure to rush around or see everything; we mostly just wandered aimlessly and enjoyed ourselves. It's a really good city for that.

Huế's main attraction is in the center of the city. In the early 19th century Emperor Gia Long moved the capital here and built a giant (and I do mean giant - 2km x 2km!) citadel. Admission was a little spendy but the dozen or so ornate gates, several temples, numerous gardens, and handful of ancient musical instruments on display were really gorgeous and we're glad we went.  That said, after about an hour in blazing heat with no guide, we really had no idea what we were looking at other than the remains of buildings housing some very rich people, so we ended our tour a little early.

royalty for a day

"the big stone chime"
(that's really what it's called)

not included in price of admission:
hat, umbrella, and ice cubes

Huế was a focal point of battle during the "American" war, so much so that the citadel (along with most of the city) was mostly destroyed. They've been rebuilding ever since and thanks to UNESCO's World Heritage Site declaration in 1993 Huế has really come back to life. But reminders of the past are ever-present.

cannons outside the citadel
(lots of army helicopters and tanks were on display nearby)

As with every city in Vietnam, the central market offered everything you could possibly imagine but we didn't spend much time there. Instead, one day while walking to the bus station we ran across a smaller local market and wound through the streets exploring. We bought some bananas and I picked up a few fresh eggs from a really cute elderly lady who charged me about $0.20. The way she smiled as I handed her the money, she probably made off on the deal... but $0.20 for my all-natural hair conditioner was just fine with me.

One afternoon we got ambitious and walked to the Ho Chi Minh museum to see about some alleged old photographs of Huế. If "we went to the HCM museum" sounds familiar, it's because every single city in Vietnam seems to have a HCM museum and we indeed visited a few of them. The ones we saw featured the story of his life, lots of war propaganda, and random artifacts like the toothpick he used when he visited tiny XYZ village in 1946 - interesting once, not so much the second or third time. But they also occasionally featured temporary displays (like old photographs of Huế) that made them worth a visit.

One long hot walk later the museum was closed and the temporary exhibit appeared to be down anyway, so we wandered around the beautiful riverside statue garden...

unexpected abstraction

women were predominantly featured
in the statue garden

"the thinker" - Huế style

"friendship and love"
(... make an egg?)

Probably a much better use of our last afternoon.

Meanwhile, Kim took a tour of some of the local pagodas/ temples which included a boat ride down the "perfume" river - named because every autumn the orchard blossoms fall into the river and supposedly create a wonderful aroma as they float their way through the city. Our timing was obviously off so if you have a chance to experience this, please report back!

Anyway.  All this egg talk must mean it's time for the most important topic...

Food notes: the food in Huế was no match for Hanoi, but we still found some hits - and a few misses.
  • Nem lui is the new bun cha. (Mmmmm, bun cha.)
grilled pork with herbs that you DIY into rice paper wrappers
and peanut sauce... wow, the peanut sauce
  • Hotpots (lau) are everywhere in northern Vietnam. We never tried one because they run about $10 on average, and even though one dish feeds at least two people we were always too mesmerized by the cheaper food stall options and just never bothered. Normally they bring a grill and you cook your own dinner, but sometimes the hotpot was soup-based.
Kim's veggie hotpot
was like your mom's veggie stew - delicious!
  • Huế has a large Buddhist population so there's lots of vegetarian food. LOTS!
our 2012 Rough Guide recommended Hong Nga, and
to our surprise it was still there, open, and delicious!

com chay right around the corner from our hotel
(the ambiance was akin to eating in a Home Depot
but the food was delicious!)
  • Bun bo Huế is supposed to be a big deal there. It's basically pho bo with a special "Huế" sauce and although it was good, it didn't wow us.
action shot
  • The "pancakes" - banh khoai - are also a big deal in Huế. They're actually rice batter, fried and stuffed with sprouts, meat, shrimp and herbs.
definitely tasty... but small -
be sure to order two!
  • Banh thit nuong was the last dish we crossed off our "must try" list. Grilled pork with vermicelli and cucumbers, and a sort of peanut sauce... It was tasty but again, it didn't wow us.
bun cha it was not

Lodging notes: a few weeks before she arrived, Kim sent an email asking if we could stay at the Jade Hotel. We were sold at "one less decision to make" and we totally loved it! Our room was small but very comfortable and included a tea kettle and free coffee. But the best part was the service - the staff were all super nice, always offering free juice or coffee and scented cold washcloths whenever we returned from a hot day of exploring. Totally, completely, absolutely spoiled.

Huế was a great way to end our Vietnam extravaganza. No idea what Lao has in store, but it's got some really big shoes to fill...

cảm ơn, Vietnam!
hope to see you again someday...